Henri Pirenne, modern imperatives and medieval globalities

A student report on HSTY3903: History & Historians.
The Middle Ages may well occupy a distant past, but the period seems to have a persistent hold in one way or another, whether invoked by political leaders in the West to designate the religious fundamentalism of ISIS or car-parks offering up the remains of long-dead kings. I just had a lecture on medieval Spain where Hélène Sirantoine explained Francisco Franco’s appropriation of the Reconquista narrative to service his political goals during Spain’s civil war in the twentieth century.
Among historians, the Middle Ages continues to undergo new treatments and approaches. In recent years, as global history gains general momentum (or rides the crest of a wave), some historians have turned to the concept of a global Middle Ages, with dedicated journals, conference roundtables, teaching units and research centres in tow.
My project for History & Historians began with investigating this concept of a global Middle Ages and its development among historians. My research led me to the work of Henry Pirenne (1862–1935), a Belgian medievalist renown for his famous ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’ thesis. Briefly, the thesis argued against the then conventional proposition that the Germanic barbarian invasions of the fifth century instigated a break from antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages. Instead, Pirenne proposed that these Germanic tribes embedded themselves in a continuing Roman world, establishing a syncretic Romano-Germanic culture, while it was the much later seventh-century event of Islam’s rise (Mohammed) that broke Mediterranean unity and gave rise to the Middle Ages, Western Christendom and Charlemagne. Pirenne made the bold statement that without Mohammed there would be no Charlemagne.
Reading Mohammed and Charlemagne for the first time, it struck me that not only was he writing about the early Middle Ages, but also a post-war Europe of the 1920s. In making a case against Germanic exceptionalism in late antiquity, Pirenne seemed to be challenging the triumphalism of the German nation-state with medieval roots as written by German historians of his time (and suggesting a modern Romano-Germanic culture, which is particularly relevant for a Belgian).
I then turned to his historiographical writing and a speech he made as president of the International Congress of Historical Science (Brussels, 1923). A consistent theme across these sources is his criticism of German historicism, Rankean political history, theories of race and ‘the nation’ as adequate frames for understanding the Middle Ages. Pirenne felt they were limiting, unscientific and/or dangerous. While it’s unlikely he would have used the word ‘global’ (though he might use ‘international’), I discovered in his post-war works a vision one could call global — looking beyond Europe, enthused by 1920s internationalism and concerned with connections between peoples.
This is, of course, Pirenne at the end of a long, successful career. His influence would be felt by his successors. After hearing Pirenne present his thesis in Algiers in 1931, Fernand Braudel wrote: ‘His lectures seemed prodigious to me; his hand opened and shut, and the entire Mediterranean was by turns free and locked in!’
In a 1924 article, ‘De l’influence allemande sur le mouvement historique contemporain’, Pirenne criticised German historians for valorising the Prussian state and ignoring the reality of events around them. He wrote, ‘Ces historiens se placaient volontairement dehors l’histoire’ (‘These historians willingly placed themselves outside history’). And while Pirenne’s words may be charged with the experience of war, occupation, detention and collegiate betrayal, they are a firm reminder that historians are themselves historical actors.
‘HSTY3903: History and Historians’ was a great opportunity to place history and historians in their own historical contexts.

2 thoughts on “Henri Pirenne, modern imperatives and medieval globalities”

  1. Great Read!
    No doubt historians are the products of their own histories. Supposedly so, was not Henri Pirenne’s “Charlemagne and Muhammad” thesis an attempt to undermine the culpability (or achievement, depends how that is to be observed) of Germanic tribes during the age of the Völkerwanderung ([Great] Wandering of Peoples), in the formation towards a feudalized Europe, since he and his nationhood were predominantly descendants of the said tribes?
    There is a fundamental question to be answered for Pirrene and his supporters to verify the thesis, since he suggested the impoverishment of West Europe was the outcome of the loss of the Mediterranean trade, i.e., the economic blockade of Islam. How could Charlemagne, even at the height of his military prowess, make no serious attempt to release such blockale, especially regarding in the post Abbasid Revolution period, the Arabic Empire had had its economic and political gravity shifted to the orient, an act that would favour the Frankish endeavour in the west? Indeed, most of Charlemagne’s major campaigns were towards the Frankish east, invading the lands of the Saxons, the Moravians and Avars, whom in term, were his prime foes of the time, but not the Arabs. Were the Frankish seeking trade routes of the orients as well?

  2. Thanks for your thought-provoking comment and glad you enjoyed the post!
    It’s certainly interesting to consider Pirenne’s motivations. From my research, Pirenne seemed more concerned to play down the impact of the German migrations because he wanted to make a case for a Romano-Germanic syncretism. In the 19th and 20th century context, one might read ‘Romano-Germanic’ as pointing to France and Germany — conflict between the two seemed to characterise Pirenne’s own time.
    As for his thesis, much work has been done to challenge, refute and modify it (beyond the scope of my project).
    You are right to say the Abbasids shifted the caliphate’s orientation eastward to Baghdad and central Asia. But there were also effective Arab/Islamic presences in the west still, and at least two concerned Charlemagne (and the Franks generally).
    First, there is Al-Andalus, in Iberia. By the Abbasid period it is relatively autonomous and itself a caliphate in the 10th century. One of the most famous chivalric songs/epics narrates a campaign Charlemagne took in Iberia against Muslim forces, ‘The Song of Roland’. Second (and most importantly for Pirenne, I think), is the piracy, razing and plundering going on across the Mediterranean (for example, around Provence and into the Rhône). This was an ongoing issue and, Pirenne argues, puts a stop to Byzantine/Syrian-led trade.
    ‘Blockade’ is a tricky word because it can suggest something akin to an economic blockade nation-states impose today, which isn’t what Pirenne has in mind. It was less concerted – more piracy, raids, booty etc. But, your questions about the efficacy of the piracy in stopping trade are really interesting, and worth throwing back on Pirenne’s thesis.

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